Sensory Smart Holiday Tips
Between disruptions in everyday routines, crowded stores blasting holiday music, special foods, and demands for “best” behavior, holidays can be stressful for everyone. Happily, as a sensory smart parent, there is so much you can do to help.
Kids who struggle with changes in daily routines do best when prepared in advance. Well before any special occasion, discuss what will happen before, during, and after the big day. For example, if you are going to Grandma’s house for the holiday, review what to bring, what to wear, who will be there, and the general sequence of events. You can explain why we celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa using picture books if that helps. Mark off days on a calendar as the event approaches. By reducing unwelcome surprises, your child will be better able to predict what will happen next and be more empowered to organize his behavior.
During any school vacation, try to stick to a normal schedule like having the same bedtime and wake-up time each day so you don’t disrupt your child’s sleep-wake cycle. This is especially important for a child who tends to be a problem sleeper. Of course, if you are taking your child to an evening celebration, your ability to control this may go right out the window. Your child may stay up much later than usual, and either awaken at his regular time skipping several hours of sleep, or sleep late and miss out on several hours of daytime activity. If your child’s sleep schedule is disrupted, get it back on track by readjusting it bit-by-bit, making bedtime 10 to 15 minutes earlier each day.
The holidays are great for working on fine motor skills. Enter the name of the holiday into your computer browser to holiday theme activities such as dot-to-dots, mazes, crossword puzzles and more. For example, go to Google and enter “Chanukah mazes” or “Christmas coloring pages”). If your child needs handwriting practice, have her write place cards if it’s a big sit-down meal. This will also help your child anticipate who will sit next to her, and review what she might discuss during the meal.
Making holiday decorations can help your child feel more engaged in the celebration. Children of all ages that I work with love making snowpeople by gluing together Styrofoam balls with the tops cut flat and adding a felt face with wiggly eyes, carrot stick nose, and so on. Kids also love to glue large sequins or buttons onto a tree cut out from green construction paper or felt as well as make their own tree ornaments. Your child could also can make a Kwanzaa Kinara or a Menorah out of Sculpey or clay. You will find plenty of easy craft ideas in holiday season magazines, especially those geared toward kids.
If your child dislikes getting messy, use the tactile desensitization techniques your OT shows you so your child feels more comfortable touching “yucky” materials. If your child hates touching mushy wet textures, provide a longhandled paintbrush and vinyl gloves. If your child insists on washing hands every time he gets a speck of paint or glue on them, try to extend the experience before wash-up (let’s just paint this little part and then we’ll go wash up), or keep a damp sponge or paper towels nearby so your child can wipe off the mess without totally disengaging from the activity.
Cooking is also a wonderful sensory experience that lets your child participate in holiday preparation. Ask your child to help you write the shopping list. Go to the supermarket when it’s not too busy and have your child help you find things on the shelves. You can do this verbally (can you find the carrots in the produce aisle?) or visually (can you find the cookies on the shelf that match the cookies in this photo?). Try to not take your child to the supermarket if you are in a rush or it’s the busiest time. All of the stimulation of the food, lighting, shopping carts, and people may be tolerable only when you and the store are calm. At home, let your child help you pour, mix, blend, and decorate holiday food. Even if you’re going to someone else’s home to celebrate, you and your child can prepare a special side dish or dessert to bring along.
When gift shopping, shop when stores are less crowded or shop online. If you MUST take your child into busy stores, plan ahead and bring sensory comforts such as chewing gum and other oral comforts, earplugs or favorite music with headphones, a baseball cap or visor to protect sensitive eyes from downcast lighting, and so on.
Finally, just because everyone plans to dress up for the holidays doesn’t mean it’s worth forcing your child into clothing that will make him miserable. Scratchy lace and bows on party dresses may be intolerable. Your son may be unable to handle a tie and dress shoes. But you never know, your child may love putting on a special outfit for a special occasion. Before the event, try on any new clothes and bring a change of clothing just in case. Or opt for clothing you know your child wears happily even if it’s simply what he wears every day. As always, the key is to be flexible!
At the Holiday Gathering
Kids who tend to be sensory seekers may thrive on the novelty of a group gathering and find that the noise and activity revs them up. Kids who are supersensitive will tend to stay on the sidelines and risk becoming overwhelmed because too much noise, too many things to look at, too many people, and too much to process feel like an assault.
It’s best to make a plan in advance with your child about what to do if he starts to feel overloaded or you noticed he’s getting too wired. It’s better for your child to take a break than to feel trapped in a situation he can’t tolerate. At home, your child can politely excuse herself to go to her room if she needs time to regroup. If you’re at someone else’s home, you will need to work out a “safe space” your child can retreat to. Explain this to your host and ask where a good place might be.
A holiday gathering can be a great time to work on social skills within reason. Let your child know that he is expected to greet people, with your help if necessary. If your child dislikes hugs, teach him to stick out his hand for a handshake. You may need to monitor this if you have a relative that insists on a big bear hug that your child finds unbearable, letting this person you would appreciate their understanding and cooperation.
Prompt your child to say hello while making eye contact but don’t force it. Group gatherings have multiple sensory and information processing demands. Some people avoid making eye contact due to visual distortions, or to avoid being distracted by facial expressions, or because they struggle to process visual and auditory input simultaneously. A reasonable goal would be for your child to make brief eye contact with the person. Do not insist on having him maintain eye contact throughout a conversation if you’ve actually gotten your child to have a sustained interaction.
Bring along a busy bag, regardless of your child’s age. For a younger child, washable crayon or markers, paper, coloring books, playdoh, picture books, beloved stuffed toys, and favorite music may come in handy to help soothe your child or keep her behaving at her best. For an older child, a game, book, or music may be important take-alongs. Of course you want your child to interact with others, but if he needs a break, such tools can be lifesavers. Remember, you are working toward getting your child to stay on an even keel in a potentially rocky situation.
Don’t forget to give your child the sensory input his body craves. This is a good time to explain your child’s sensory needs and how you are helping. If your child needs to jump and crash 20 times before sitting down to eat, do it. Go outside before or after a big meal (or during in case of an impending meltdown) in order to run, march, hop, skip around the block, walk through a pile of crunchy leaves, stomp in the snow. Bring along your brush if you are doing a deep touch pressure program.
Don’t insist (or let others insist) that your child try something “disgusting” just because it’s the typical holiday food. A holiday gathering is not a therapy session. Go ahead and offer your child some turkey, for example, because this may be the time she’ll finally try it, especially if her favorite cousin seems likes it. If you know your child most likely will not eat what’s being served, bring along something you know she will eat. Others may think you’re spoiling your child (“just send her to my house for a week and she’ll eat everything”) but that’s far better than dealing with food battles and tantrums. Just explain that you are working on expanding on food choices, and that you’d appreciate others not making it their business.
Bring along “safe” desserts you know your child likes, but recognize that it’s going to be hard to maintain your no-sugar rule when everyone else is enjoying cookies and pies. If your child doesn’t have allergies, this may be the time for a special treat. Be prepared for behavioral reactions such as increased activity level and crankiness. If you know your child gets hyper after eating sugar, plan an intense physical activity like climbing stairs or sledding.
Finally, bring along your child’s pillow and possibly bedding if she is very sensitive and you plan to stay overnight. Remember to bring a nightlight, white noise machine, or any other bedtime necessity.
Very best wishes for the holidays!
Adapted from the November-December 2010 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine